“You can go now, Mommy.”
My daughter’s words are so quiet I’m not sure I’ve heard her right.
It’s the first day of pre-kindergarten, and we’ve only been here six minutes. We held hands through the door and now I’m helping her settle in at her table with the Play-Doh and new friends, but none of the kids are talking to each other yet, so there’s no way she’s ready for me to leave . . . I lean in closer. “What, darling?”
“You can go now.”
I heard her right.
“Oh, okay. Okay. I guess, then, bye. Have a good day.”
I dart in for one final kiss on her cheek, and backpedal out of the classroom, unwilling to take my eyes off her. She gives me one tiny, sober wave, then ducks her head back down, focused on her Play-Doh.
Out in the hallway, I start blinking hard and walking fast, not wanting any of the other moms to see what a wreck I am. Isn’t this backwards? Isn’t my four-year-old supposed to be the one crying and clinging as I try to pry her fingers off me so I can dance around my quiet, empty house and do whatever I want (mostly laundry) for three glorious hours?
I escape to the parking lot and hide in my goldfish-carpeted minivan. Eyes clouded with tears—too cloudy to drive—I flash back to a brown racetrack under a sunset sky. I’m eight, and I’m running with my dad, ready to run forever just to keep pace beside him. He’s slowing down for me, way down, and I’m pushing my little legs as fast as they’ll go. There’s no talking, just the slap of shoes and the rhythm of breathing. And I’m happy, so happy I think my heart might burst. After a while Dad puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “I’m going to do a couple of fast laps and then come back and we’ll run the final stretch together, is that okay?” I nod. “It’s okay, Dad. You can go now.” I watch him sprint away, the fastest man in the world, and on we run at our two different paces, and I’m still happy, knowing he’ll come back to me and we’ll run the last laps together. We’ll sprint to the end and he’ll let me win and we’ll collapse, gasping and giggling, onto the grass in the middle of the track.
And now I flash to my wedding day. It’s minutes before the Big Walk, and all the bridesmaids have just left to line up. All morning it’s been a blur of makeup and hair and flowers and grandmothers and mothers and sisters and girls, girls, everywhere, but now for six precious minutes, I’m alone in the bride room with my dad. His eyes are red and it’s almost time. We should probably be having some profound father-daughter moment, but I’m suddenly hot, so hot in this huge silk dress, so hot the room is spinning and—more importantly—my makeup is going shiny. I’m giggling, “I’m melting, I’m melting!” And Dad, ever the Fixer of My Problems, grabs the long cardboard box the florist used to carry the bouquets, and tells me to stick my arms out like a scarecrow, and he stands there in his tux and fans me till my adrenaline cools and my makeup is saved. We’re half-laughing, half-crying, Dad flapping a box in his tux and me holding a scarecrow pose in my gown, and we’re four feet away from each other but it still feels like hugging.
We’re still laugh-crying when a woman with a headset pops her head into the room. “It’s time to go now.”
Neither of us is really ready, but it’s time, and people are waiting. My husband-to-be is waiting.
Dad puts down the box and holds out his elbow. I take a breath and take his arm. The pianist starts to play: “Jessica’s Theme” from The Man from Snowy River, all tender notes in sentiment and swirls. We wait, and listen, and breathe. The music hits a crescendo of exquisite expression.
Headset Lady says, “You can go now.”
Doors open. We start walking, into a blur of smiles and waves and camera flashes, “Jessica’s Theme” now punctuated with “oohs” and “aaahs” from family and friends. Overwhelmed, I lose all sense of my dad. My head, my eyes, my heart, are everywhere else, with everyone else.
And halfway down the aisle, Dad squeezes my arm and leans in. “Can we slow down a little, Honey? Please?” He laughs a little in my ear, but I hear the tears in it. Happy tears, but still. “Yes, of course,” I say, realizing I have been sort of sprinting.
We slow down. This one last time, this final “final stretch,” I let Dad set the pace, and this time, he’s slower than I am. We’ll get there when he’s ready to get there. He’ll let go when he’s ready to let go. His steps are even and sure, and I know he’s counting every one.
And when we get to the end of the aisle and the preacher says, “Who gives this woman?”, Dad lifts my veil and places my husband’s hand on mine and says, “Her mother and I.” His voice doesn’t shake, and his kiss on my cheek tells me, You can go now.
Still blinking tears in my van, I smile at the memory and marvel at my father, my mother—how’d you do it? hold on and let go?—and then I marvel at my daughter. Only four, and she gets it, this life. Maybe a little better than I do.
The next summer, I watch my mother and her sisters say good-bye to their beloved mother, the redhead with the laugh as big as New Jersey. One by one, they sit at her bedside, hold her tiny hand, and kiss her. One by one, they tell her, each in their own way: You can go now, Mom. She cannot speak, but her eyes say thank you.
And I realize, reluctantly, that life is all about holding on while you can, but letting go when it’s time. That’s the magic—the struggle, the wonder, the heartache—of childhood, of life: It’s over too soon, and while it lasts it’s a maddening whirlwind of joy and sorrow and affection and anger and a thousand bittersweet emotions all in the blender at once, exploding all over the kitchen. Making art or a mess, depending on how you look at it, what mood you’re in.
And the magic is in the whirlwind. It’s in the blender, the mess, the art. The magic is in the holding on, but it’s also in the letting go. It’s in the first-day pictures and the track meet medals and the wedding cake cutting, yes. But it’s also in the Play-Doh greetings and the sunset sprinting and the florist-box fanning. It’s in the vigil-keeping and the long goodbye. The magic is in the places in between the holding hands and letting go.
The magic is in taking turns being the one to say it first, the one to give permission. The magic is in letting yourself—sometimes making yourself—hold on a little tighter, and run a little slower, and enjoy the long walk with the one beside you. The magic is in the voice at the end, the quiet voice that gives you a nudge and gently whispers, You can go now.